It’s hard to believe that a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee could have a sophomore slump at the age of 69, after a recording career of more than 40 years. But that’s exactly what this record represents. In 2002, with Don’t Give Up on Me, Solomon Burke - “The King of Rock & Soul” - made his most popular, acclaimed recordings since the ‘60s, recordings that exposed him to many listeners for the first time. This follow-up album, like so many follow-ups to great records, attempts to capitalize on the artist’s previous success by repeating the formula of its predecessor and—for the most part doesn’t quite measure up.
Here’s my big question about this record: why is Don Was its producer? Apparently, switching labels brought about new priorities for Solomon, priorities like hiring a big-name producer, regardless of that producer’s suitability for a project like this. When I think of Was, I think of slick records, the pleasantly unthreatening sound of Bonnie Raitt, and insipid ‘90s Stones recordings. And, my associations are right are target: the title track on this album, for example, sounds like an outtake from Raitt’s Nick of Time. Nearly the entire record sounds too polished, too clean. To an untrained ear, perhaps much of it sounds “soulful”, simply because of the instrumentation and arrangements Was employs. But even on many of the songs that technically have a soul sound, that deep, southern soul feeling just isn’t there.
One of the best things about Don’t Give Up on Me wasn’t just that so many of the songs were by esteemed writers, but that the songs were by those writers and were relatively unknown or previously unrecorded. The songs on that album sounded fresh because they really were. Many of the selections here, in contrast, are more familiar. And, though they aren’t the most popular tunes in the rock canon, they’re recognizable, and recognizably tough to cover. The best part of the classic film The Last Waltz was The Band’s performance of Robbie Robertson’s “It Makes No Difference”, with Rick Danko on vocals. After hearing that version of the song so many times, it’s hard to be interested in Solomon’s interpretation here. The same goes for his version of “I Got the Blues”, originally recorded by the Stones on Sticky Fingers. Even more troubling is Burke’s version of Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” Originally penned and performed as a masterful piece of contemplative self-loathing, the song sounds simply ridiculous here as an upbeat reggae tune.
All that said, there are a few highlights on Make Do With What You Got. Strangely, they’re stuck in the middle of the album, which may indicate that whoever put this record together saw them as less interesting or important than the other selections. By far the best track here is a cover of “Let Somebody Love Me” by writers Vernon Bullock, Freddie Gorman, and Ivy Hunter. Solomon simply nails this song. Originally recorded for Motown by David Ruffin, the song features a killer, sustained organ line that echoes Ruffin’s version, dramatic backing vocals, and a sterling vocal performance from Burke that bests Ruffin’s original. The three songs that follow, while not nearly as engaging, approach the quality of the material on Don’t Give Up on Me. “After All These Years” - which Burke co-wrote with Eddie Towns - is a heartfelt look at a long marriage and, like “Let Somebody Love Me”, features some nice organ work. “Fading Footsteps” chugs along nicely, and guitarist Ray Parker Jr. (yes, that Ray Parker Jr.) puts the song over the top with his bent notes during the chorus. “At the Crossroads”, by Van Morrison, has a great country feel to it, boasts a terrific pedal steel solo by Robby Turner, and features some of Solomon’s finest singing.
Is this record worth buying? Perhaps, for the good songs here, or if you’re a big fan of Solomon Burke. Maybe, with its pleasantly slick sound, it’ll be a hit for the VH1 crowd and on Adult Album Alternative radio stations. But in my book, Solomon Burke can do much better than this. Let’s hope he soon gets the chance to do just that.
// Notes from the Road
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